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Desperate foreign students seek charity

29 November 09 06:01 GMT

By Preeti Jha
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live

Hundreds of destitute Indian students have finished another free lunch at a Sikh temple in Southall, west London. It's not the dream of England they were sold.

"I can't afford to rent a room, I'm borrowing money from relatives at home just to buy my bus fare to college," says Nitin Walia, who has sought refuge at the temple since he arrived on a student visa last week.

His story of being duped by agents - middlemen who charge students a fee to secure them a college space - is echoed by others in the room.

"Agents in India say you will definitely find a part-time job to fund your studies in the UK.

"But it's totally different here, there are no jobs," says Ravi Singh, who began a course in business management in October.

A combination of the recession and a surge in the number of students is changing the local landscape, says Didar Singh Randhawa, president of the two Sri Guru Singh Sabha temples in Southall.

"We see hundreds of students hanging out in the streets, but there could be thousands," he says.

"Most come here every day for food. We are happy to provide food. But they also ask for accommodation.

"If they don't find anything we provide them with shelter, for a day or two. We can't keep them for longer. We are hearing that some are sleeping rough."

Rapid rise

Last week the Donal MacIntyre programme revealed that the number of student visas granted in India and Bangladesh has tripled since the new points-based immigration system began in April.

A Freedom of Information request showed that between June and August this year the British High Commissions in Mumbai, New Delhi and Dhaka issued 19,950 student visas.

Ravi can afford to rent a room with the money sent over from his father, but unless Nitin finds a job he has no means to stay.

"I never would have come if I knew I couldn't get a job," says the 21-year-old from rural Punjab.

He is studying travel, tourism and hospitality at an accredited college in London, on a legal student visa.

A condition of the student visa requires applicants to prove they have enough funds to cover their stay in the UK - and many Indian students do.

But some are exploiting a loophole, according to Harjap Singh Bhangal, a solicitor and director of London Immigration Advice & Appeal Services.

He says: "Before October an applicant only needed to show he has held the money in his bank for one day prior to the application.

"So he could technically borrow the money, put it in his account on Monday, apply on Tuesday and once he reaches the UK return the money.

"After October this requirement has been increased for the applicant to show he has held the funds in his account 28 days prior to the application. This has not proved to be a deterrent."

Mr Bhangal thinks this has led to an influx of both genuine students, without the resources to fund their course, as well as bogus students who want the visa to find jobs - foreign students are allowed to work for up to 20 hours per week.

Jeremy Oppenheim, head of the points-based system at the UK Border Agency (UKBA), said: "Anyone coming to the UK must satisfy the border force officer that they meet immigration rules and will comply with any conditions attached to their visa. If they cannot the officer can and will refuse entry.

"Schools and colleges are inspected by accreditation bodies and the UKBA to ensure they are genuine. Before we tightened controls around 4,000 UK institutions were bringing in international students, this currently stands at around 2,000."


Nitin paid an agent nearly £600 to arrange his visa and spent a further £2480 on college fees and a flight. It took his parents' entire life savings and money borrowed from relatives to meet the cost.

"I feel we have been tricked here," he says. Shortly after he registered at his college, in central London, he was told there was not enough space and shifted to another one.

"On the internet the college shows it's a big campus, but when I got here I saw it's just one small building with box rooms. We could find better colleges in India," he says.

When asked why he believed everything the agent told him and risked migrating without any money, Nitin says: "Everyone is excited about studying abroad, for better opportunities. No one thinks whether we will get anything or not when we get there."

A few weeks ago the Sri Guru Singh Sabha temple in Southall set up a telephone helpline, offering students advice on anything from how to apply for a National Insurance number to buying a travel pass.

"Some of them are begging us to send them back but we haven't got the resources," says Mr Randhawa.

He has sent a message to the local press in Punjab, where many of the students come from, to warn applicants to arrange money and accommodation before setting off.

Nitin can only spend a day or two more at the temple. He says: "I will only be able to rent a room if I can find a job, if I can't find one I will return to India. But that will bring great shame. I don't know how I will return the money I have borrowed."

Students' names have been changed to protect their identity.

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